THE SHOW

Here is what you will learn if you visit the Gossip Girl set in Queens: The boys are not joking when they say it's a job. It is a job. It's also a machine. Wrangle them, beautify them, light them, shoot them, shoot them again, make sure you've got it, move on. There are no table reads, no rehearsals, no "What's my motivation?"

On one set, Blake's and Penn's characters are bickering about his new girlfriend or her new boyfriend or whether they can still be friends or something. Blake-as-Serena turns angrily to Penn-as-Dan. "So this is how you want to handle it," she snaps, "using another girl to embarrass me in front of my fans?" Oops. "Did I say fans instead of friends?" she says, laughing. Penn can't help smiling. It escapes nobody: The line between self-dramatizing high-schooler and self-dramatizing teen idol blurs so easily.

A soundstage away, the intense and poised Leighton Meester, the young brunette who plays the calculating Blair Waldorf, is hissing vicious lines at Mädchen Amick, who is playing Nate's cougar, while Ed glowers mysteriously. In the real world, Amick, 37, has the kind of exquisite, symmetrical loveliness that could cause road accidents. In the Gossip Girl universe, however, she is old, an inappropriately ancient predator whom Blair batters with insults like "Aging beauty. Having your last hurrah before the surgeries start?" She takes it well. TV is a bitch.

This summer, while Gossip Girl was hibernating, the ABC Family network rolled out a very afterschool-special-ish, don't-get-pregnant drama called The Secret Life of the American Teenager. The series is more or less awful, but the title is brilliant, and the show's audience has quickly grown to 4 million, plus massive iTunes purchases. Bigger than Gossip Girl. OMFG and not in a good way.

So this moment, this momentum, is fragile. It takes only five minutes for a show to become so five minutes ago. Nobody knows that better than Gossip Girl's creator, Josh Schwartz, who launched The O.C. at 26, watched the infotainment universe exalt it for a year, and then saw Season 2 succumb to creative missteps and ego inflation. There's no margin for error when much of your audience has ADD. "It was a real education," he says. "The second season is when a show defines its sustainability." So yes, Schwartz will amiably field requests from Chace, Penn, and Ed to explore their characters' unseen depths, and then he and the executive producer, Stephanie Savage, will do what's best for the show. "They'll all have their opportunities," he promises calmly. "But yeah, when you're 21 you just want to play a badass."

So really, nobody should be complaining, or squirming, or asking for more. Right? Keep your eye on the big picture. And the big screen. Be sure to sound humble when you say It just doesn't get any better than this. Even if you secretly hope it does. Try not to think of it as a competition, or of fame and success as a zero-sum game. Even though the world is telling you that's exactly what it is.

"I know. I know," Penn says. "There's no 'Oh, boo-hoo.' The truth is, we all wanted this. We're living amazing lives that so outweigh the negative shit. To do what we do? Sometimes I feel like we're cheating the rest of the world."